What is Truth?

I recently read True Words by Nicholas Wolterstorff and would like to interact with his article.

Wolterstorff defines truth by saying this: “I suggest that the root notion of truth is that of something’s measuring up – that is, measuring up in being or excellence.” I agree with this because it makes the definition of truth more inclusive and comprehensive. The definition’s inclusiveness and comprehensiveness are what I consider this definition’s significant strengths. If truth is something’s measuring up, there must be a standard of which that something is measuring up to. With this meaning, the context defines the standard to which something is being measured.

When Wolterstorff uses the verses John 5:31 and 8:17, he is displaying that “true” is more than the philosopher’s standard sense of ascribing to something asserted. I agree with him because then you must judge what about Jesus’s testimony is being asserted, which can be too interpretive and even nearsighted. If Wolterstorff’s definition is used, then Jesus’s use of the word “true” means his testimony measures up in being or excellence. The words “true” can be substituted in such fashions as follows: “If I bear witness to myself, my testimony does not measure up; there is another who bears witness to me, and I know that the testimony which he bears to me measures up.” “In your law it is written that the testimony of two men measures up.”

In the following examples, the of uses “true” and “truth” cannot even be assertions (John 2:8). In John 3:21 “truth” is an action. In John 4:23, John 15:1, John 17:3 “true” is no longer even actions, it is an adjective. Then in John 3:33, 7:28, 8:26, 14:6, and 17:17, “true” and “truth” are nouns. Wolterstorff’s definition works in each case here as well. “Measuring up” can be an action, “measuring up in excellence” can be an adjective to describe the nouns, and “measuring up in being” can be the noun. Again, some form of “measuring up” can be inserted for every “true” and “truth”. The point here is that each time something is being measured up to a standard, and the standard is different or similar in each context. This definition and way of looking at it provides inclusiveness and comprehensiveness.

This definition of truth is not relativism because as Dr. Glenn Kreider put it “relativism would be the view that everything is true, that all statements are true, that every interpretation of reality is legitimate.” Furthermore, as Richard Rorty supports that there are no relativists because if everything is relative, that is an absolute statement, which means it cannot be relative and nothing would be relevant. Wolterstorff’s definition is claiming that truth is relative to a context. This would be considered contextualization and not relativism.

The only significant weaknesses I can think of for Wolterstorff’s definition is that the standard that something measures up to can often be subjective. So, if not everyone has the same standard, then the “truth” can be different to everyone as well.

 

Relativism and Postmodernism

The self-identified postmodern philosopher Richard Rorty asserts: “Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good.The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” (Consequences of Pragmatism [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982], 166.) Elsewhere he describes relativism as “self-refuting.” (“Solidarity or Objectivity,” in The Rorty Reader, ed. Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein [Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010], 229.)

Similarly, literary critic (reader-response) Stanley Fish asserts: “While relativism is a position one can entertain, it is not a position one can occupy. No one can be a relativist because no one can achieve the distance from his own beliefs and assumptions which would result in their being no more authoritative for him than the beliefs and assumptions of others, or, for that matter, the beliefs and assumptions he used to hold.” (“Is There a Text in This Class?” in Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980], 319.)

Alister McGrath states this about postmodernism “Reason is to be seen as a contextual and relative affair, defined in relation to the prevailing narratives and power structures of a society or institution.” Although he says reason is a relative affair, I do not think he is intentionally drawing a parallel between postmodernism and relativism. I think the charge that postmodernists are relative persists, because both points of view challenge the idea of having a black and white, right and wrong view of everything in existence. Postmodernism challenges the idea that human reason is absolute and universal, and challenges the weight of metanarratives. That does not automatically translate to every idea is as good as the next one. Richard Rorty states “Relativism is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.” Given that he is a self-identified postmodern philosopher, I think this supports my point. Even though postmodernism challenges the idea that human reason is absolute and universal, it does not make any sense for every belief to be as good as every other. If that were true, there would not be a point in believing anything; and everything would seem pointless. Yes, postmodernism supports the idea that beliefs can be contextualized and relative, but that is not the same thing as every belief being as good as every other. Furthermore, taking the position that “every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other” is an absolute itself. Therefore, Rorty says the view is “self-refuting and is an impossible position to hold.” On top of that, it would still separate relativism from postmodernism because postmodernism is opposed to the idea of any absolutes.